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Covid-19 courts backlog plan

A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) ‘Criminal Courts Recovery‘ plan to address the Covid-19 courts backlog has got a cautious welcome.

Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said measures announced ‘will get the criminal courts system back to where it needs to be – reducing delays and delivering speedier justice for all’. He said: “Throughout the pandemic this government has taken the necessary steps to protect the public while ensuring that justice continues to be delivered. This temporary extension to custody time limits will keep victims and the public safe, and we should not apologise for making that our priority.”

Social distancing due to the pandemic means courts cannot hear the volume of cases required to reduce the backlog, even once courts re-opened (and not all court buildings are), as the MoJ points out. Proposed are 1,600 new staff; eight more temporary ‘Nightingale Courts’; a further roll-out of technology; and changes to the physical set-up of courtrooms to minimise risk, such as the use of plexiglass barriers. Also suggested are new ‘COVID operating hours’, as being trialled in Liverpool Crown Court – longer hours that court buildings can be used for trials outside the standard weekday times of 10am to 4pm (at very latest). More tests of hours until 6pm are due at Hull, Stafford, Cardiff, Snaresbrook, Portsmouth and Reading.

Comment

Nottinghamshire’s Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Emma Foody said that the MoJ placed too much emphasis on returning unheard case volumes to pre-Covid levels – which were she said already “grossly excessive”. Wholesale changes were needed across the criminal justice system to improve efficiency, she added.

“Our absolute priority in Nottinghamshire is to see victims and witnesses having their cases heard swiftly, enabling them to receive justice and rebuild their lives. Without an increase in court capacity, they are facing a wait of several years to receive justice. It’s absolutely imperative that the backlog is cleared – not merely restrained. The Government must wake up to the fact these issues are not exclusively related to Covid-19 and that the current system is inherently flawed.”

The Government in July announced ten temporary “Nightingale courts”; none in Nottinghamshire, Ms Foody noted. She said: “Delays of the kind that have been experienced both pre and post-Covid, particularly in the Crown Court, are simply unacceptable and only prolong the trauma and despair of victims, who deserve much more.

“We hope the East Midlands, and Nottinghamshire in particular, is given the go-ahead for a Nightingale Court in the very near future. Clearly, there is now an extra £80m available to build capacity and we would call on the government to decide with urgency how and where they will invest because time is ticking.

“The simple fact is that the backlog in the Crown Court will continue to grow while the current safety restrictions limit our activity. Even more disappointing is the fact that the Recovery Plan will see the backlog increase for the most complex and serious Crown Court trial cases, as they are the most difficult to deal with under the Covid-19 regulations.

“The Plan includes several proposals designed to increase the number of cases heard – but we need to be more innovative, making better use of the resources we already have and working with the CJS agencies and HMCTS to develop new routes for swifter justice that will stop this crisis happening again. Money alone will not solve the problems.

“Victims of crime need to see justice happening. It is their right. The delays are already having a huge impact on public confidence and we will continue to work with our partners in the criminal justice system, and exhaust all opportunities, to find a realistic and effective way forward.”


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